The leaders of Rochester’s Black Lives Matter movement said Tuesday that officials are wrong about their assertion that “outside agitators” caused the violence that followed a peaceful rally Saturday.
In protest of George Floyd's death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, thousands went to Martin Luther King Jr. Park for music and speeches Saturday. Similar demonstrations were held across the country.
But things turned violent as some marched to the Public Safety Building. Police cars were flipped and destroyed, and stores throughout the city and Irondequoit were wrecked. Officers deployed tear gas and shot pepper balls, and 200 state troopers were called in.
The group did not denounce the actions of those who looted or rioted.
Stanley Martin, who was joined by fellow organizers Ashley Gantt, Stevie Vargas and Iman Abid, said the only “outside agitators” involved were members of law enforcement, who she said mostly don’t live in Rochester.
“The only outside agitators were the police,” said Martin. “Members of our community were safe, they were nonviolent. And even if they (weren’t), it comes from years of suffering and oppression, and the only outside agitators were the police. That’s what we believe, that's what we stand by.”
Martin also said the group is raising money for the legal defense of anyone arrested during the unrest after the rally, saying, “we are more than prepared to help.” She went further, asking supporters to not assist police.
“We do not encourage anyone, any supporter of the movement for black lives, to provide any information to the police regarding Saturday’s event,” said Martin. “What we do demand is freedom of all people, all people across Rochester and our nation.”
Gantt criticized the media’s portrayal of the weekend’s events.
“I am just tired of you guys not putting the correct narrative out there,” said Gantt. “The focus is why this has happened. I don’t care if the whole city burns down, we need justice, and that is the story that needs to be told.”
Inside the Locust Club headquarters, home of Rochester’s police union, President Mike Mazzeo said he understood the need to protest -- he, too, is horrified by Floyd's death, he said.
“What we saw take place, nobody can look at that and not just be appalled. It’s wrong,” said Mazzeo.
But he said he was concerned about a large gathering at this time. The timing of the protests, in reaction to the footage of Floyd’s death, may have contributed to the unrest.
“I was very concerned with the anxiety and the stress levels that we were seeing in the city over the last couple of weeks," he said. "It was a powder keg that was just waiting to be lit.”
He says the mix of the pandemic, high unemployment levels, financial stress and uptick in violence around the city in recent weeks also may have compounded matters.
Mazzeo has some common ground with the protesters and Gov. Andrew Cuomo: They all say that state law 50-A should be repealed. That law is often used by municipalities to keep police disciplinary records secret.
Mazzeo said he’s at loggerheads with other police unions about the law.
“It’s gotta be transparent,” Mazzeo said about police conduct. “You have to let the public, let the community know what took place, why it took place and if you believe it's wrong, you have to say it's wrong. And if you believe it to be right, you have to say that. It’s still going to be an investigation either way.”
Cuomo said that mayors can legally reveal these records on their own accord and said on Tuesday that he’d sign legislation that would repeal law 50-A.